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Published: Friday, 6/20/2003

Movie review: Bend It Like Beckham ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

You've heard a lot about the comic-book movie boom, the rebirth of the movie musical, the return of Demi Moore and West Nile Virus. But forget it.

The hot germ this millennium is the culture-clash picture: East meets West, Status Quo meets Progress, Old Stalwart meets Young Mold-Breaker, Big Fat Greek Wedding Family meets Big Fat Boring WASPs From Greater Chicago. If you have a loud family and a fundamental difference in your personalities, and this has yet to be addressed in a charming light comedy, write a screenplay immediately. In the new documentary about spelling bees, Spellbound, an 11-year old girl from Washington explains to the camera, with a matter-of-factness that's startling, her life is like a movie: “I have trials and tribulations, and I overcome.”

That said, soccer moms of Greater Toledo, members of any ethnic group in Northwest Ohio clinging to the old country, daughters of Title 9: Prepare to bend it like Beckham.

Let me translate: Beckham is David Beckham, husband of Victoria Beckham (a.k.a. Posh Spice), and the backbone of the UK's Manchester United football team. “Bending” a soccer ball (I mean, football) is kicking it in such a way as to curve it past a goalkeeper.

Put it together, you have Bend It Like Beckham, the latest genial yet broad ethnic comedy about overcoming something. It was a mammoth hit in Britain last year, and has been a steady favorite in the U.S. since opening earlier this spring, and it's not hard to see why: this is an overcoming-the-odds fiesta; the latest feel-good import, an Anglo-Indian sports-movie girl-power crowd-pleaser that follows on the heels of Monsoon Wedding and Billy Elliot - and one American blockbuster, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) longs to bend it like Beckham. She sleeps in an attic room with slanted ceilings covered in David Beckham paraphernalia. She dreams of playing soccer - and escaping her household of wacky ethnic stereotypes. “No one bends it like Beckham,” she tells her parents, middle-class Punjabi immigrants who live in the flight path of London's Heathrow Airport. If you don't digest how traumatized her traditional clan feels about the encroachment of modernity, then the constant roar of airliners buzzing their roof should drill the point into your skull.

Bend It Like Beckham isn't torture: The cast is good, the film is good-natured, and you could do worse than anchor a movie around newcomer Nagra, a down-to-earth star in the making. But it makes the obvious jokes and sitcom rhythms of Big Fat Greek Wedding look avant-garde. Besides the title, nothing else needs translation on this side of the Atlantic: Jess meets beanpole soccer goddess Jules (Keira Knightley), who urges Jess to join her women's soccer (sorry, football) team, coached by preening pretty boy Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).

This doesn't go over well with Jess' parents who, while not entirely conservative, cringe at the thought that sports is the focal-point of a young woman who should be thinking about marriage, college, or, at the very least, landing a boyfriend. And yet, as directed with a jackhammer by Gurinder Chadha, it is not enough for Beckham to be about Jess clashing with her family. Jules herself has a shrill mother (Juliet Stevenson) who doesn't understand why her supermodelish offspring can't just wear pink or like to shop. Also, Jules and Jess are suspected of having an affair. Also, also: One of Jess' male mates comes out of the closet.

Also, also, also: Jules is attracted to Joe, but Jess is attracted to Joe; meanwhile, back on the homestead, Jess' sister, Pinky, is getting married. The wedding is on the same day as the Big Game and Jess must decide (unfairly, unbelievably) between her Anglo-Indian roots or the sport that makes her feel alive. I won't even get into the American soccer coach who comes knocking with an offer for Jess and Jules to move to the U.S. and play on the same team - setting up another predicament to be sorted out with a hug and a warm speech.

Bend It Like My Big Fat Billy Elliot Monsoon Wedding is chipper and well-intentioned and you might like it, but you will not be surprised, and that, to me anyway, is disappointing. It offers nothing genuine, from the exhilaration Jess supposedly feels on the field to the reasons her family protests, and the film comes off as insular as Jess' folks. On the other hand, there is a backhanded compliment being paid here: When an Indian family is treated as blandly and ordinarily as the family in a sitcom, status quo has given ground to progress.



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